Worst. Vacation. Rental. Ever.

Somewhere between hauling a month’s worth of groceries and luggage up four flights of stairs and into a shoebox-size urban rental apartment and discovering the spider nesting in the bedsheets, I happened to brush my hand across my face.

Instead of smooth skin, a hundred tiny bumps met my fingers. I was experiencing some kind of allergic reaction — who knows to what?

And it was at that point, as I inhaled the stale air tinged with cigarette smoke and bacon, that I said to my oldest son, “We can’t do this.”

We’d just checked into the world’s worst vacation rental in, of all places, Ottawa, Canada.

I don’t use that term lightly, since we’ve stayed in a lot of rentals and tolerated every imaginable indignity. The fact that there was no air conditioner didn’t bother me, even though it had been an unseasonably warm 80+ degrees that day (that’s 26 degrees Celsius, if you’re Canadian). Try living in Europe in the 1970s.

No dishwasher? No problem. I didn’t have one when I was growing up, in college, or in graduate school, or in my first apartment in New York.

But bugs in the bed? A sticky film of yellow on the white wall, the telltale signs of a heavy smoker who occupied the unit before us? A galley kitchen in which it looked like small animals had been ritually sacrificed on the countertops? (See photo of the stovetop, above. What did they do to it?)

Too much.

I’ll get to the dramatic ending in a minute. But before I do, I want to tell you how we got ourselves into this mess.

We were too trusting. Kari, my better half, normally vets each vacation rental with care. She knows what to look for and how to read between the lines when it comes to a rental description. I have a few useful tips in our FAQ section on vacation rentals.

This time, she received a recommendation from a reliable source. She said “yes” without checking on the dishwasher, air conditioning, elevator and neighborhood. Part of the reason, is that she didn’t want to offend her source, who praised the rental and its amazing location in the Canadian capital.

The source was correct about the amazing location. It was about a mile from all the great cultural attractions — but a mile in the wrong direction. It was a working-class neighborhood where few people spoke English, car alarms were spontaneously set off off at night, and the cries of infants resonated through the narrow apartment halls.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve lived like this, as I’m sure many of my readers have. But no one in their right mind vacations like this.

Lesson learned: No matter how “reliable” you think your source is, never ever ever make a reservation based on a single recommendation. Even if that source is me.

Don’t. Do. It.

Kari sent a strongly worded email to the rental owner. She noted the steps we tried to follow in order to resolve this problem, including calling the management company’s number when we arrived and the after-hours number. One went directly to a fax machine, the other said “mailbox full.”

“The pictures you chose for the online site are perfect but don’t represent the whole room which was just shabby and run-down,” she noted. “I have pictures that I can share with you from inside the rental.”

I will spare you these photos because I’d like to keep this a private matter between the owner and our family. And yes, they promptly refunded the deposit and rental fee. Frankly, I’m more embarrassed than they should be. After all, we booked the unit without doing our due diligence. We got what we deserved.

We checked into the nearest Holiday Inn & Suites. I’ve never been happier to see the familiar green logo and to open the door to a clean room than I was on that day. It’s a feeling I will never forget. I love you, Holiday Inn!

As I write this, I’m happy to report the rash is slowly disappearing. The humiliation will wear off after a while, too.

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